News & Politics

This Local Author Is Writing a Humorous Book—About Grief

And she's caught the eye of judges who just awarded her a quirky writing residency.

Kara Kinney Cartwright. Photograph courtesy of Teri Rizvi.

After losing her husband of 28 years to an aggressive form of cancer, Kara Kinney Cartwright, a legal writer who lives in North Potomac, found herself in the grief section of her local bookstore, flipping through titles.

“I was thinking ‘Okay, I’m ready to want to feel better, but just looking at what was available, I immediately knew none of it was for me,” says Cartwright, who moonlights as a humor writer. She didn’t want spiritual advice, nor did she want a sterile outline on the stages of grief. Rather, she wanted some company, somebody who also noticed—and perhaps found some absurd humor in—how surreal it can feel to continue with the motions of everyday life while facing a profound loss.

“There’s something so surreal about sitting at a red light or pushing your cart around the grocery store or logging into a Zoom call in the midst of a devastating experience,” said Cartwright. “You’re sort of sitting there at the red light, thinking, Do these people know? Like, do they know that every minute of every day people are [losing loved ones]? Why aren’t we talking about this?”

So, she decided she would talk about it. It’s the unexpected basis of her upcoming humor book that has also won her a seat at the University of Dayton’s competitive “humorist-in-residence program.”

“It’s not every day I laugh out loud about someone’s dead husband, but then again it’s not every day I read a simultaneously hilarious and heart-wrenching submission,” said one of the residency’s judges, comedy writer Monica Piper, in a press release. “I am deeply convinced that the world needs this book and the writer needs the time and space to write it.”

The eccentric residency—called perhaps “the best in the country” by Forbes—awards emerging humor writers with “a hotel room of one’s own” at a local Marriott where two winners, who are flown into Dayton and “robed” like royalty in fluffy bathrobes, enjoy two weeks of free room service and distraction-free time to work on their personal projects this April. To help spark their creativity, they also receive free entry to the university’s Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, which has been dubbed the “Woodstock of humor.”

While a Marriott stay in Dayton, Ohio likely won’t top a Travel + Leisure fantasy trip list anytime soon, it’s certainly a dream for Cartwright, who has largely put her writing career on the back-burner. “For women in particular, there are many things that we put ahead of our creative aspirations and interests,” said Cartwright, who is one of two writers to win the residency out of the nearly 250 worldwide who applied. “We put our jobs first, our families first, and you know, life just happens.”

Still, Cartwright has found small windows to write throughout the years. When her two sons were younger, she’d channel her literary urge by jotting down humorous haiku, mostly funny observations on the mundane habits of suburban life (i.e. “Just tidying up / before the cleaning lady / who is also me”).

“Seventeen syllables a day was, really, all I could squeeze in,” says Cartwright, who eventually compiled her collection into a book, Suburban Haiku: Poetic Dispatches from Behind the Picket Fence, underneath the pen name, Peyton Price, nearly a decade ago. More recently, as her sons approached adulthood in 2020, she squeezed in time during the evenings and weekends to write, Just Don’t Be an Asshole, a humorous guide for young men that Cartwright describes as her “last lecture on their way out the door.”

However, her latest—and perhaps more serious—book has proven a little more tricky to write, as she balances her family’s “private experience with the universality of losing a family member.”

“There’s always the question of how much to share and how to honor my husband’s beautiful life in a way that is good for our family and also good for others going through the same thing,” says Cartwright, who hopes she can provide the type of company she was seeking at the bookstore in the midst of her own grief.

“There’s some absurd humor in the fact that so many folk are walking around experiencing devastating loss but also just going through the motions of normal life without acknowledging it in any way,” says Cartwright. “I just want someone to validate that experience for someone else and acknowledge how weird it all is.”

Jessica Ruf
Assistant Editor